Emma dreamed of visiting the Hardie Casino baths. Hardie’s two-story building with big arched Greek columns was the fanciest and the largest bathing casinos in Miami. Her mother, Carla, recently began working there as a sandwich maker, since their move from New York. Emma would sit every night entranced as Carla told her about all the people she saw that day sunbathing on the beach and swimming in the big salt water baths. She pictured fancy ladies in sunglasses and big-brimmed hats lying under beach umbrellas in the tropical sun and dozens of heads donned with bathing caps bobbing about in the deep salt water. And she imagined men diving from boards high in the air plunging into the pool below. But a casino pass was too expensive for their little struggling family, so Emma would have to live through Carla’s daily tales.
“Emma, Emma, I have a wonderful surprise for you.” Carla excitedly ran up the stairs to their 2nd floor apartment. Emma smiled and met her at the door just like every day before.
“Mr. Hardie gave this to me himself as a bonus.” Carla smiled and handed a yellow ticket to her daughter.
Emma looked down at the ticket and cheered, jumping into her mother’s arms in glee. It was a day pass to visit the Hardie baths tomorrow. She would finally get to see everything she imagined with her own eyes and get to sunbathe on the golden beach and swim in the sea water pools. It was a dream come true.
Richard was taking measurements and recording hourly findings in the ledger. He volunteered for the twelve-hour night shift, relieving a work friend who left to attend his mother’s 60th birthday party. September 17th 8pm: 19 mph wind speed, barometer mostly steady slight drop, mild rain. No signs of any disturbances, he wrote, filled up his coffee and tilted back in his desk chair until his next report.
Emma fell asleep that night smiling with her wool bathing costume and cap next to her, dreaming of the next day’s event.
At midnight, Richard wiped the sleep from his eyes, filled up his coffee cup and read the wind speed and barometer again. The wind picked up to 30 miles per hour speed, the rain increased and the barometer dove again. Additional drop in barometer, probably due to rain, he wrote. No other disturbances.
Unaccustomed to the night shift, Richard fell in and out of sleep for the next few hours draining the coffee pot. He dutifully managed the hourly reports with no incidents, but at 5am Richard noticed a curious plummet in the mercurial rate of the barometer with the rain and winds increasing. Precipitation and wind speed steadily increasing to 50 mph, barometer dropping, he wrote. Still within parameters of rain storm-will monitor pattern.
Now Richard was wide awake. The rain and wind didn’t bother him, but the barometer was a concern. The barometric pressure and wireless reports from ocean steamships to Washington DC were their only indication of a tropical storm.
By 8am the barometer had jumped up and down like a ball, but the rain diminished and the wind was down to 10 mph. The barometer pattern is uncertain, could be within margin of error. Rain and wind speed depleted, no disturbances noted, but will continue to monitor barometer.
Emma and Carla awoke to overcast conditions, but no rain.
“Do you still want to go today? There’s no sun.” Carla asked. Emma’s eyes and smile grew big as she quickly nodded in response. Nothing could keep her from visiting the bathing casino, especially not a few clouds. Since Carla had to work anyway, they headed out the door to be there for the 9am opening.
After leaving her mother in the back-door kitchen, Emma quickly dressed in her bathing costume and wool cap and walked through the restaurant into the bath area. It was beautiful, just as she pictured. The long deep pool lay in the middle of the deck filled with chaise lounge chairs and fresh towels rolled on the seat. Her eyes turned skyward toward the three diving boards of various heights which seemed to reach to the heavens. Walking on the beach, she saw lounge chairs with umbrellas resting near the ebbing tide. All it needed was people to fill in the blanks. By 10am, despite the lack of sun, there were water bathers in the pool and ocean and sunbathers occupying the chaises. Emma happily went back and forth jumping into the bathing pool, watching the divers and running up and down the tide line.
At 10am, Richard noticed a big drop in the barometer again, but there was no rain and wind speed held at 10-15 mph. He looked at the wireless and saw no reports from the sea.
Suddenly at 10:30am, the wind speed reading picked up to 40 mph. Richard called the anemometer reader at the Federal building to double-check. They were also reading 40 mph, but he knew their margin of error was 15 mph because the three-story building was surrounded by newer buildings 10 to 12 ft taller in Miami’s growing metropolis. Richard was concerned. Checking the wind speed constantly, at 10:45 he noticed the wind increased to 60 mph. He tried to call the Federal Building to check the readings, but the phone lines were down. Protocol dictated posting the only public warning flags on the beach at 65 mph. Without confirmation, he was hesitant to make the solo call, but felt it was imminent, so he gathered the red and black-squared flags and walked three blocks to the beach.
Emma saw workers on the beach, hurriedly lowering the umbrellas tussling in the wind. Some people retreated to the pool area where the building provided a windbreak.
“Due to the wind, please exit the beach area immediately and take shelter in the building,” a man walked along the beach shouting into a megaphone.
Emma quickly walked toward the restaurant where Carla was waiting at the back door and hugged her. “I was coming to get you. We lost power in the kitchen, but I have a light. I think the freezer is the best place to be until this blows over.”
Richard reached the empty beach and posted the flags at 11:15am and ran back to the office fighting against the amplifying wind gusts. By 11:50, the wind speed was 95 mph. The category 4 hurricane hit Miami at 12:05pm at a velocity of 100-115 mph with a 15-ft storm surge.
The front half of the Hardie Casino building caved like a melting bar of chocolate with the 2-story building tiers and front columns atop each other. As the wind lulled, people came out on the street to see the damage, but a second wave hit a half hour later at 60 mph, killing more people and toppling the front of the building and the big Greek columns to rubble. Emma and Carla were safe in the kitchen’s walk-in freezer. The back of the Hardie building was the only part left standing.
Author’s Note: Those of us who live in hurricane paths are grateful for the notice and preparation provided by technology. 100 years ago, very little notice or public warning was provided.
© 2021, Suzanne Rudd Hamilton